National Association For Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Company

Decision Date02 July 1982
Docket NumberNo. 81-202,81-202
Citation458 U.S. 886,102 S.Ct. 3409,73 L.Ed.2d 1215
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

In 1966, a boycott of white merchants in Claiborne County, Miss., was launched at a meeting of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attended by several hundred black persons. The purpose of the boycott was to secure compliance by both civic and business leaders with a lengthy list of demands for equality and racial justice. The boycott was largely supported by speeches encouraging nonparticipants to join the common cause and by nonviolent picketing, but some acts and threats of violence did occur. In 1969, respondent white merchants filed suit in Mississippi Chancery Court for injunctive relief and damages against petitioners (the NAACP, the Mississippi Action for Progress, and a number of individuals who had participated in the boycott, including Charles Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi and a principal organizer of the boycott). Holding petitioners jointly and severally liable for all of respondents' lost earnings during a 7-year period from 1966 to the end of 1972 on three separate conspiracy theories, including the tort of malicious interference with respondents' businesses, the Chancery Court imposed damages liability and issued a permanent injunction. The Mississippi Supreme Court rejected two theories of liability but upheld the imposition of liability on the basis of the common-law tort theory. Based on evidence that fear of reprisals caused some black citizens to withhold their patronage from respondents' businesses, the court held that the entire boycott was unlawful and affirmed petitioners' liability for all damages "resulting from the boycott" on the ground that petitioners had agreed to use force, violence, and "threats" to effectuate the boycott.


1. The nonviolent elements of petitioners' activities are entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. Pp. 907-915.

(a) Through exercise of their First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, association, and petition, rather than through riot or revolution, petitioners sought to bring about political, social, and economic change. Pp. 907-912.

(b) While States have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as that found in the boycott in this case. Pp. 912-915.

2. Petitioners are not liable in damages for the consequences of their nonviolent, protected activity. Pp. 915-920.

(a) While the State legitimately may impose damages for the consequences of violent conduct, it may not award compensation for the consequences of nonviolent, protected activity; only those losses proximately caused by the unlawful conduct may be recovered. Pp. 915-918.

(b) Similarly, the First Amendment restricts the ability of the State to impose liability on an individual solely because of his association with another. Civil liability may not be imposed merely because an individual belonged to a group, some members of which committed acts of violence. For liability to be imposed by reason of association alone, it is necessary to establish that the group itself possessed unlawful goals and that the individual held a specific intent to further those illegal aims. Pp. 918-920.

3. The award for all damages "resulting from the boycott" cannot be sustained, where the record discloses that all of the respondents' business losses were not proximately caused by violence or threats of violence. Pp. 920-932.

(a) To the extent that the Mississippi Supreme Court's judgment rests on the ground that "many" black citizens were "intimidated" by "threats" of "social ostracism, vilification, and traduction," it is flatly inconsistent with the First Amendment. The court's ambiguous findings are inadequate to assure the "precision of regulation" demanded by that Amendment. Pp. 920-924.

(b) Regular attendance and participation at the meetings of the Claiborne County Branch of the NAACP is an insufficient predicate on which to impose liability on the individual petitioners. Nor can liability be imposed on such individuals simply because they were either "store watchers" who stood outside the boycotted merchants' stores to record the names of black citizens who patronized the stores or members of a special group of boycott "enforcers." Pp. 924-926.

(c) For similar reasons, the judgment against Evers cannot be separately justified, nor can liability be imposed upon him on the basis of speeches that he made, because those speeches did not incite violence or specifically authorize the use of violence. His acts, being insufficient to impose liability on him, may not be used to impose liability on the NAACP, his principal. Moreover, there is no finding that Evers or any other NAACP member had either actual or apparent authority from the NAACP to commit acts of violence or to threaten violent conduct or that the NAACP ratified unlawful conduct. To impose liability on the NAACP without such a finding would impermissibly burden the rights of political association that are protected by the First Amendment. Pp. 926-932.

393 So.2d 1290 (Miss.), reversed and remanded.

Lloyd N. Cutler, Washington, D. C., for petitioners.

Grover Rees, III, Austin, Tex., for respondents.

Justice STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The term "concerted action" encompasses unlawful conspiracies and constitutionally protected assemblies. The "looseness and pliability" of legal doctrine applicable to concerted action led Justice Jackson to note that certain joint activities have a "chameleon-like" character.1 The boycott of white merchants in Claiborne County, Miss., that gave rise to this litigation had such a character; it included elements of criminality and elements of majesty. Evidence that fear of reprisals caused some black citizens to withhold their patronage from respondents' businesses convinced the Supreme Court of Mississippi that the entire boycott was unlawful and that each of the 92 petitioners was liable for all of its economic consequences. Evidence that persuasive rhetoric, determination to remedy past injustices, and a host of voluntary decisions by free citizens were the critical factors in the boycott's success presents us with the question whether the state court's judgment is consistent with the Constitution of the United States.


In March 1966, black citizens of Port Gibson, Miss., and other areas of Claiborne County presented white elected officials with a list of particularized demands for racial equality and integration.2 The complainants did not receive a satisfactory response and, at a local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) meeting at the First Baptist Church, several hundred black persons voted to place a boycott on white merchants in the area. On October 31, 1969, several of the merchants filed suit in state court to recover losses caused by the boycott and to enjoin future boycott activity. We recount first the course of that litigation and then consider in more detail the events that gave rise to the merchants' claim for damages.

The complaint was filed in the Chancery Court of Hinds County by 17 white merchants.3 The merchants named two corporations and 146 individuals as defendants: the NAACP, a New York membership corporation; Mississippi Action for Progress (MAP), a Mississippi corporation that im- plemented the federal "Head Start" program; Aaron Henry, the President of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP; Charles Evers, the Field Secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi; and 144 other individuals who had participated in the boycott.4 The complaint sought injunctive relief and an attachment of property, as well as damages. Although it alleged that the plaintiffs were suffering irreparable injury from an ongoing conspiracy, no preliminary relief was sought.

Trial began before a chancellor in equity on June 11, 1973.5 The court heard the testimony of 144 witnesses during an 8-month trial. In August 1976, the chancellor issued an opinion and decree finding that "an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence" established the joint and several liability of 130 of the defendants on three separate conspiracy theories.6 First, the court held that the defendants were liable for the tort of malicious interference with the plaintiffs' businesses, which did not necessarily require the presence of a conspiracy.7 Second, the chancellor found a violation of a state statutory prohibition against secondary boycotts, on the theory that the defendants' primary dispute was with the governing authorities of Port Gibson and Claiborne County and not with the white merchants at whom the boycott was directed.8 Third, the court found a violation of Mississippi's antitrust statute, on the ground that the boycott had diverted black patronage from the white merchants to black merchants and to other merchants located out of Claiborne County and thus had unreasonably limited competition between black and white merchants that had traditionally existed.9 The chancellor specifically rejected the defendants' claim that their conduct was protected by the First Amendment.10

Five of the merchants offered no evidence of business losses. The chancellor found that the remaining 12 had suffered lost business earnings and lost goodwill during a 7-year period from 1966 to 1972 amounting to $944,699. That amount, plus statutory antitrust penalties of $6,000 and a $300,000 award of attorney's fees, produced a final judgment of $1,250,699, plus interest from the date of judgment and costs. As noted, the chancellor found all but 18 of the original 148 defendants jointly and severally liable for the entire judgment. The court...

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